Have you ever wondered how they celebrate New Year’s Eve in other countries?
Olde Richmond native and educational psychology scholar Thomas Dixon does.
In fact, he’s so curious that he has established a unique tradition. Every year, he sets off to a new country and a new city to learn how they celebrate the holiday—or, if they even celebrate it at all.
Last Saturday, Dixon gave a talk about this tradition as part of the program “Celebrations around the World” at the Penn Museum.
Dixon’s parents are not world travelers. In fact, they don’t even have passports. So how did his tradition get its start?
While he was in college, he visited his girlfriend’s family in Taiwan over winter break in 2003. He expected a celebration as the calendar rolled over to 2004.
“I thought it was a standard. I thought it was a given that people would celebrate New Year’s Eve around the world, and when I was with my girlfriend’s family, they looked at me like I was a weirdo when I said, ‘What are we doing?’ They said, ‘What are you talking about? It’s Tuesday.’ ”
He was shocked that they didn’t celebrate the holiday.
“I started to wonder what else I was wrong about and how I could change,” Dixon said. “I knew I was wrong about many things, but I didn’t even know what I was wrong about. So I had to find out.”
That’s when he hit upon the idea to travel around the world to experience New Year’s Eve in different cities.
The first year, 2004-2005, he still wasn’t fully committed and he cheated somewhat, going to New York City.
After that, he established a series of rules.
“My trips must be somewhere I have never been before at all,” he explained. “If I’ve been to the country at all, it’s not eligible. And I’m not going to go into a war zone, so it has to be safe enough. I’m not going to risk my life, hopefully.”
He also tries to vary the cities he visits.
“I’ll try to mix it up, going between hot areas and cold areas, and I want to have some distance as well. Countries next to one another are going to be more similar to each other, perhaps.”
New Year’s celebrations are not a requirement, though.
Although it’s getting more difficult as a result of forces like globalization that change customs and cultures, Dixon seeks countries where they don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve, saying, “I still hope to go to countries where they don’t celebrate so I can again be reminded that they don’t have to do this.”
Dixon has been to London, Tokyo, Mexico City, Dubai, Paris, and Amsterdam.
This year, he intends to go to Sweden. They do celebrate New Year’s Eve in those cities, but they don’t always do it the same way.
When he went to Dubai for New Year’s Eve 2014, he discovered that not only do they celebrate the holiday, but they do it big. That year, the city set the world record for fireworks. The following year, he went to Paris and discovered that, while they celebrate New Year’s Eve, they don’t launch fireworks.
The assumptions that we make can cause problems, especially in academic fields, according to Dixon.
“There was a paper that came out recently, 2010, ‘The Weirdest People in the World.’ And it was talking about how a lot of research that is done is focusing on ‘weird’ populations,” Dixon said. “This really matters, because we’re making generalizations about people in psychology and education, but we’re focusing on a very ‘weird’ population: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.
“Most of the world is not Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic and yet here are fields like education and psychology talking about people like we could study college kids.”
While Dixon points out that traveling around the world can be challenging for many people, he faces some challenges that are specific to him.
In 2010 he was hit by a car, which nearly killed him and left him unable to travel for two years. The resulting injury to his brain left him suffering from seizures and episodic memory loss.
He combats his memory loss through the use of various strategies, including a special smartphone app that he helped to design that allows him to keep a running, searchable diary.
Talking about his trip to Mexico City, he said, “I want this to be encouraging for anyone you know with medical conditions. I still was able to go out and celebrate New Year’s Eve even though I had a seizure around 4:30 that day, partly because my girlfriend and I were able to go out together. I’m really glad that my medical conditions have not gotten in the way of celebrating these trips.”
For more information about the Penn Museum’s World Culture Days, visit: www.penn.museum.